Common Chinese Characters you’ve been Reading Wrong!

Kyle@Sensible: This is a guest post by John Renfroe of Outlier Linguistics. They are working on a very cool concept for a Chinese learners dictionary built in accordance with sound scientific principles and the modern Chinese paleography. Neat huh?

This kind of stuff blows my mind! Here’s a sneak peek at some of their insights with some common Chinese characters. 


在 and 才

Most people don’t realize that the phonetic component in 在 (zài) is 才 (cái). It’s obvious in seal script, but it’s a little harder to see in the modern form. But once you see how it changed over time, it’s actually quite clear.


Common Chinese Characters youve been Reading Wrong!

出 is not Two Mountains!

出 has nothing to do with “two mountains,” as most people explain it. It was originally a foot 止 stepping out of a cave 凵, thus depicting “to go out.”

Common Chinese Characters youve been Reading Wrong!

The opposite of 出 was actually 各, which depicted a foot stepping into a cave and meant arrive. Of course, it doesn’t mean that anymore.

Common Chinese Characters youve been Reading Wrong!

 並 is really two people standing together!

Then there’s 並 [bìng to put together], which originally depicted two people standing shoulder to shoulder. It corrupted over time into its current form.

Common Chinese Characters youve been Reading Wrong!

 亼 is actually an upside-down 口!

The 亼 component in characters like 合 and 食 was originally an upside down mouth. The original meaning of 合 was “to respond” (which is now written 答). So 合 (to respond) was two mouths facing each other. Makes a lot more sense than trying to wrestle some meaning out of 人+一+口, right?

Common Chinese Characters youve been Reading Wrong!
If you enjoyed the insights in this article check out Outlier Linguistic’s webpage and blog and follow them on Twitter at @outlierlinguist.




  • Great content, but the custom JavaScript scrolling is infuriating and I don’t even see why the page would need it 😐

    • Kyle Balmer

      I’m not 100% sure what you mean. Do you mean the main scrolling bar? It’s connected to the WP theme but let me see what I can do to change it out!

      • I’ve taken a quick look at the JavaScript files that are used by this blog, and this is definitely the library that causes the terrible scrolling:

        And you are right, it is probably needed to style the scroll bar.

        Maybe it works fine on other OS/browser combinations, but in Safari on OS X, the scrolling is noticeably different from normal scrolling (different inertia behaviour). The plugin’s own website feels terrible as well. Just my 2 Eurocent 🙂

        • Kyle Balmer

          Hi Julian,

          I’ve finally stopped the theme from loading in that script. Not as easy as it should have been for sure! Hope that’s made a difference on your side – tell me if not though so I can keep looking for the problem.


          • Hey Kyle. Thanks for looking into it. It’s still loading the script here, though. But I am optimistic that most people are not as picky about this as I am 🙂

  • 讠 yán speech,
    射 shè shoot,
    身 shēn body,
    丿 piě slash,
    冂 jiōng down box,
    三 sān three,
    一 yī one,
    二 èr two,
    丿 piě slash,
    寸 cùn inch,
    一 yī one,
    亅 jué hook,
    丶 zhǔ dot,

    讠射身丿冂 三一二 丿寸一亅丶